Tag Archives: János Kádár

Miklós Horthy will not have a statue in Perkáta after all

In December 2015 Viktor Orbán, under American pressure, declared that no Hungarian politician who remained in office after Hungary’s occupation by German troops on March 19, 1944 could have a memorial. Prompting this declaration was the controversy over the decision of the City of Székesfehérvár to erect a statue of Bálint Homan, the anti-Semitic minister of education in the 1930s. The idea to honor Hóman with a statue ostensibly began as a local initiative, but Viktor Orbán was the real promoter of the project. The government provided a sizable amount of money to fashion a life-size statue of the corpulent education minister. The statue became a flash point in the already strained relations between Hungary and the United States, and Orbán retreated. As he explained in parliament, the reason the City of Székesfehérvár couldn’t erect a statue of Hóman was that Hóman remained a member of the Hungarian Parliament after German troops occupied Hungary. As Orbán put it, “the constitution forbids honoring anyone who collaborated with the oppressors.” He added that “for that reason, he wouldn’t support a statue for Governor Miklós Horthy either.”

One would have thought that the issue had been put to rest once and for all. So I was surprised to hear that a Horthy bust will be unveiled in Perkáta, a village situated between Székesfehérvár and Dunaújváros. There are already three Horthy busts or statues in existence: in Csókakő (2012), in Hencida (2013), and in Budapest (2013). Despite Orbán’s claim that the Hungarian constitution forbids the existence of such statues, they have not been removed. At the very least one would have hoped that no other municipality would embark on erecting an “unconstitutional” monument. But this is exactly what happened.

As opposed to the Hóman case, which turned out to be a clandestine government project, I suspect that the Perkáta affair is a genuine local blunder. Balázs Somogyi (Fidesz) has been mayor of Perkáta, a town of 4,000 inhabitants, for the last eleven years. The citizens of Perkáta are not enthralled with his performance because on the question “How satisfied are you with the work of the mayor?” he received a D+. It’s hard to fathom why they keep reelecting him. One thing is sure: he is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He accepted the offer of a free bust of Horthy from three citizens of Perkáta, who turned out to be members of the New Hungarian Guard, a far-right organization that came into being after the original Hungarian Guard was declared to be illegal. The three men assured Somogyi that the erection and unveiling of the bust would not cost the village a penny. The mayor jumped at the offer and at the earliest opportunity presented the project for approval to the town council. On April 20 the town council, without ever informing the local citizens of their decision, approved the project. The unveiling was scheduled to take place on May 20, with leaders of far-right groups in attendance.

All set and ready

After the opposition media got hold of the story, several organizations and parties raised objections, but the mayor confidently announced that “the erection of a memorial is a completely local issue. It is up to the people who live there.” The problem was that the people of Perkáta were never asked or even informed about the arrival of a Horthy statue. And Somogyi either was or pretended to be ignorant of Viktor Orbán’s verdict on Horthy’s veneration as an unconstitutional act.

This time, unlike in the Hóman case, a reversal took place in record time. A few hours after this confident announcement, the town council of Perkáta suddenly withdrew its permission for the erection of the bust. So, what happened? The locals learned about the unveiling of the bust from TV reports. Some of the more enterprising citizens began an anti-bust drive, which gathered several hundred signatures in no time. They didn’t want Perkáta to become like the nearby Csókakő, which is a common destination for far-right pilgrimages as a result of the statue of Horthy placed there 15 years ago.

One could say all this was nothing more than a storm in a tea pot. But the Hungarian right—and I include Fidesz here—is outraged. An incredible editorial appeared in Magyar Hírlap by Pál Dippold, a writer and journalist who is not considered to be extremist by Hungarian standards. He is just a good old Fidesz supporter whose articles appear at regular intervals. As far as he is concerned, Perkáta’s rights were violated by journalists who descended on the village and talked about Horthy’s controversial historical role. Dippold describes them as “green sharks tattooed with five-pointed stars that attacked a Hungarian carp.” The shark is of course a “liberal shark” which can easily move from a salt- to a fresh-water environment. The carp is helpless against it. If the shark metaphor weren’t graphic enough, at one point he calls independent journalists “imported pigs” who consider themselves members of the fourth estate. These imported liberal pigs/sharks attacked true democracy by going against a local decision. They managed to force their will on Perkáta. The poor Fidesz mayor’s statement about the reasons for his retreat is “poignant” when he talks about defending his people from “these strangers bent on creating a scandal.” What follows is a defense of Miklós Horthy, who was “a decent Hungarian politician who did everything he could to preserve the remnants of the country that remained after Trianon.” He was a good Hungarian, like “the inhabitants of Perkáta and its well-meaning mayor.”

As we know, at least since December 2015 erecting a statue of anyone who collaborated with the Germans, as Horthy certainly did, is not a local affair. What would Dippold say if, as a friend of mine suggested, György Moldova, a prodigious writer known for his detailed sociological nonfiction, were to offer a bust of János Kádár to be erected on a public square anywhere in the country? (Moldova is known to be a great admirer of János Kádár, whom he considers a genius and the greatest statesman of modern Hungarian history.) If some town or village took Moldova up on his offer, I would wager to say that local opinion, which Dippold finds such an important part of democracy, would no longer be the deciding factor. The locals would need to be “educated” by right-wing–well, pick your favorite cuddly animal.

May 19, 2017

András Schweitzer: Factors that made Hungary a borderline democracy (and are likely to stay)

András Schweitzer is a journalist who has been working for HVG since 1999. Currently he is on leave of absence. Since June 2013 he and his family have been living in Brussels.

In addition to being a journalist he is also scholar with a Ph.D. in political science who is currently working on completing a second Ph.D. in history. For a number of years he has been involved with a historical research project for the 1956-Institute.

* * *

According to the official rhetoric, the profound constitutional and political restructuring by the second Fidesz government (2010-2014) aimed to put an end to two decades of post-communist meandering and to finish off the remaining legacy of state-socialism. However the actual legal and economic changes constitute more an illiberal turn back to the bad old days. Of all the countries that joined the West in the Annus mirabilis of 1989 Hungary returned to exist again in history in the Fukuyama sense.

It is logical but inadequate to blame the global financial crisis for this unfortunate chain of events. The corruption of the Hungarian democratic political and market-oriented economic system had already been going on years before it. The dramatic transformation should instead be attributed to the following factors.

1. As an unfortunate coincidence the Hungarian democratic opposition did not have a single outstanding politician comparable to Czechoslovak Václav Havel or Polish Lech Walesa when the Wall fell.  István Bibó, a brilliant scholar and deeply convicted democrat (the once spirited state minister of the Imre Nagy government in the heroic days of 1956) could have been such a character acceptable to all main dissident groups – but he died a decade too early. Of the sizeable pool of dissenters, Machiavellian and confrontational Viktor Orbán happened to be the most talented and ambitious, who managed to politically survive the last quarter of century by being both harsh with the opponents and attentive to popular expectations. He showed signs of wanting to concentrate political and economic power in his hands already after he had first become prime minister in 1998, but it was the two-third majority between 2010 and 2014 which made it achievable for him.

2. Skepticism is a widely prevalent attitude in Hungary and yet voters have always showed affinity for political illusions. Research shows that the correlation between the level of government spending and the election cycles in Hungary is significantly higher than in other East-Central European countries. Elections have increasingly become promise-contests where honest players (at the beginning Fidesz included) had no chance to win. Politicians had to learn this lesson or leave the scene. After winning with excessive election pledges in 2002 and 2006 the Socialists found themselves in a difficult position: first they tried to be true to their promises and accumulated a budget deficit reaching 10% of the GDP, then after the 2006 elections, when this was no longer feasible without an immediate financial crisis, Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted he had lied about the state of the economy and introduced tough austerity measures. This became an important reason for the increasing popularity of Fidesz.

3. Despite all the good intentions and creative solutions at its crafting, the complex election system of 1989 was unfit for Hungary. In a country where people tend to vote for candidates mostly according to their party affiliations and where there are no significant regional differences in voting patterns even the party list leg of the system and the additional compensation list could not guarantee proportionality. In a single party list system, which would be the proper alternative for Hungary, Fidesz would have won a simple majority of just over 50% in 2010, but the actual electoral system transformed this into a two-thirds win which is the legal limit to changing the constitution. The new rules made the 2014 election results even more unproportional: with more weight given to the first-past-the-post leg the system guaranteed about two-thirds of the seats to Fidesz with less than 50 percent of the votes. (It is typical of the relatively uniform Hungarian voting behavior that in a Westminster-style system Fidesz would have had a 98% majority in the 2010-2014 parliament as its candidates won in 173 out of 176 districts. The election result of last Sunday showed a similar pattern of homogeneity: with the exception of a few electoral districts in Budapest, Miskolc and Szeged the whole country turned orange again.)

4. Liberal democracy and free market economy did not produce a general sense that things are looking up as a result of economic reform (which would have been a necessary ingredient of the success of transformation according to the insightful prophesy of Ralf Dahrendorf), and there has been an illiberal downslide in public opinion. The failure of half-implemented liberal policies was used as an argument against liberal ideals. It was claimed that “neoliberal” openness and privatization resulted in foreign intrusion and the cheap selling out of the country’s wealth; tolerance increased crime; multiculturalism endangered the country’s cultural character; preference for market mechanisms brought unemployment and oligarchs; protection of civil rights brought inefficient government. Capitalizing on and enforcing this sentiment, left and right political groups sometimes joined forces in measures to undermine the third (liberal) power block, which practically disappeared by 2010.

"In the footsteps of our fathers" / Magyar Narancs

“In the footsteps of our fathers” / Magyar Narancs

5. Unlike the short 20th century Czech history, which could be schematized as the interwar democratic “good guys” being followed by the communist “bad guys” Hungarian heavy weight political leaders of the era – Miklós Horthy and János Kádár – are both controversial figures. Numerous Hungarians tend to forgive the interwar governor for being complicit in the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews by claiming that he resisted deportation until the German occupation, which, in turn, didn’t leave him much choice. Many exonerate Kádár for his crimes as a communist dictator by emphasizing that he managed to construct the “happiest barrack” in the Soviet camp. As opposed to the Polish, the Czech or the Slovak context, Hungarian history lacks the heritage of a wide scale popular anti-fascist movement, and the revolutionary fever of 1956 also faded with the subsequent decades of a relatively mild dictatorship. A democratic role model is generally missing from Hungarian political consciousness. Horthy gained legitimacy by being the admiral of the nation who held the steering wheel of the Hungarian mothership against a sea of powerful enemies (even if the nation suffered a devastating defeat at the end). Kádár was made popular by providing welfare to the widest possible masses (even if this led to a crippling debt burden by 1989). Already the first democratically elected government capitalized on the earlier dormant nostalgia for the Horthy era, which has steadily grown stronger ever since, while Socialists never dared to dissociate themselves from widely popular János Kádár.

6. The Inglehart–Welzel Cultural Map of the World based on findings of World Value Survey reveals a remarkable cultural pattern: of all the countries of “Catholic Europe” (other ex-communist states like Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia included) Hungary scores the highest on having  “survival” instead of “self-expression” values. This puts the country the furthest away from leading democracies of “Protestant Europe” and the “English-speaking” world and the closest to Serbia, Albania, and Macedonia. Survival values are indeed reflected in prevalent ideas of Hungarian political life: yearning for economic paternalism instead of a free market (stemming from the existential fear of individuals) and ethno-nationalist sentiments instead of tolerance (stemming from the collective existential fear of the nation). Kádár’s ways to gain legitimacy well fits the former whereas those of Horthy go hand in hand with the latter.

7. Sixteen years ago it was Hungary’s northern neighbor, Slovakia that was generally considered to be a laggard among the transition nations of East-Central Europe, with a populist unchecked majority rule in an unconsolidated democracy. At that time however the fear that Slovakia would be left out of NATO and EU enlargement served as a wakeup call to the people who in the 1998 elections ousted Vladimír Mečiar’s authoritarian-populist government. Unfortunately, lacking similar incentives, the equally strong signals from Western democracies to Hungary don’t seem to have a substantial effect. While numerous Hungarian individuals contributed greatly to world civilization (usually after emigrating from the country) the wider public has traditionally been quite inattentive to the outside world. Hungary is perceived by many to be an island in the German, Latin and Slavic seas, a feeling reinforced by the living grievances of the post-WWI events when Hungary lost two-thirds of its historic territory and more than 3 million ethnic Hungarians found themselves in foreign countries. The so-called Trianon-tragedy is usually blamed on disingenuous neighbors and conspiring great powers. The island feeling is also existent on the individual level: surveys have for decades shown an extremely high level of individualist sentiment and low-level of trust among Hungarians which hampers effective social cooperation.

Between 2010 and 2014 Orbán’s government created a peculiar system, which could be called a borderline democracy. It walks the rope of taking all possible undemocratic measures to ensure its power (from gerrymandering through concentrated denigration campaigns to limiting free press) while at the same time trying to maintain all the formal legal criteria of democracy. In order to produce laws that serve its political interests but don’t contradict EU legislation it collects and connects “worst practices” from other European countries (to use a term EU-expert Györgyi Kocsis used in early 2011 about the new media law). Having changed the electoral system to its liking, having filled political posts with friends and clients, having an overwhelmingly friendly media, it had a remarkably wide array of potential measures to ensure its decisive win at the 2014 elections. It must be noted however, that even if the democratic left had won in 2014, this would not have meant a quick return to democratic normalcy. Instead, the political fight and cold civil war that characterized the years 2006-2010 would have come back.

During the last 25 years politicians on the left and right have learned the lesson of being popular by being populist. As liberal parties were disappearing incumbents have managed to gain an ever greater pool of supporters. Orbán’s 2014 victory is the second time in a row (after the 2006 narrow win of Gyurcsány) when a party and a prime minister were given a second term. Orbán’s government successfully combined Kádár’s and the Horthy’s approaches to gain support – its actions and rhetoric were at times more socialist than those of the Socialists and more nationalist than those of the nationalists. It also managed to bleed out its opponents on the left and on the right by a thousand cuts (from discovering and publicizing awkward information about their politicians through starting legal procedures against them to strictly limiting their channels to address a wider audience or even to collect and use campaign money) but its voter base diminished since 2010 nevertheless. In the future more resources may be needed to successfully apply similar techniques, therefore further political and economic centralization and an increase in the confrontational rhetoric is likely to come in the run up to 2018.

Written on October 27, 2013, updated on April 7-8, 2014

Mária Vásárhelyi: The Renaissance of Homo Kádáricus

Today I will summarize an article by sociologist Mária Vásárhelyi that appeared a couple of days ago in Élet és Irodalom. The article is another attempt at defining the political order that has developed in Hungary in the last three and a half years.

There are at least three good reasons for making the gist of the article available on Hungarian Spectrum. First, because relatively few people can read it in the original. Second, because even those who can handle Hungarian might not be able to peruse it because ÉS is nowadays available only to subscribers. And third, because I hold Mária Vásárhelyi’s work in high regard. The media is the focus of her research, but in this article she talks about the pervasive influence of János Kádár’s regime. We must keep in mind that the Kádár era lasted more than a generation, to be precise 33 years.

She is the daughter of Miklós Vásárhelyi, a close associate of Imre Nagy who became the spokesman of the second Nagy government on November 1, 1956. When the Soviet troops began their offensive against the rebels on November 4, Vásárhelyi and his family, including his children, joined Imre Nagy and others in the Yugoslav Embassy and after November 23 in Romania. Eventually Vásárhelyi was sentenced to five years in jail.

So, Mária Vásárhelyi’s democratic credentials cannot be questioned. One can’t argue that she or her family was in any way associated with the Kádár regime and that thus she tries to minimize its responsibilities. I heard an interview with her some years back in which she described what it was like to be the daughter of “that Vásárhelyi.”

The article’s title is “The Renaissance of Homo Kadaricus.” It is thus clear from the beginning that Vásárhelyi seeks the roots of the present political system in the Kádár era. She begins on an optimistic note. She is sure that Orbán’s system will collapse because “it is not viable economically, in social terms it is terribly unjust and morally depraved.”

Many analysts have tried to describe and explain the phenomenon of Orbanism. How it was possible that within three short years Orbán and his minions managed to undo the democratic achievements of the regime change that occurred between 1989 and 2010. Explanations naturally vary: the lack of a democratic tradition, centuries of foreign domination, or the lack of a robust middle class. Others argue that in Hungary right-wing influences, especially strong during the Horthy regime, made such an impression on the Hungarian psyche that a large, if not predominant, portion of Hungarian society sympathizes with the authoritarian regime of Viktor Orbán.

Mária Vásárhelyi, without doubting that all of these influences are important, sees “the largest role in Orbán’s successes in the reminiscences of the Kádár era and the anomalies of the regime change.”

Those who have studied the Kádár regime or who experienced it first hand know that on the surface the period between 1963 and 1985 was considered by many to be the golden age of Hungary’s twentieth-century history. Most people were totally satisfied with their lot and expected that every year they and their families would live better. There was a kind of unspoken arrangement by which the people didn’t poke their noses into politics and, in exchange, the party and the government made sure that their material yearnings would be more or less satisfied. Most people had no idea about the serious economic problems that existed already in the 1980s and, even if they did know about them, they didn’t think it was their business to get involved in any way. János Kádár and the others would take care of everything.

The overwhelming concern of most people was material, to which all else was subordinated: morals, compassion, democracy, freedom, human intercourse. They had little sympathy for the practically starving Poles or the oppressed Hungarians in Ceaușescu’s Romania. If they heard about the democratic opposition’s activities, they condemned them because, in their opinion, “they endangered the peace and order of Hungary” or because “they served the interests of the Great Powers.” Today’s Hungarians are to a great extent the products of this age and outlook.

Kadar 1959

János Kádár among his own, 1959

Vásárhelyi thinks that the Orbán regime’s Horthy cult is only an “eyewash” to keep those right-wingers whose vote is necessary to remain in power. Vásárhelyi is convinced that for the great majority of Hungarians the Horthy era means nothing. Some of them can’t even place it in time. Orbán’s real popularity lies in his success at being able to speak the language of the Everyman of the Kádár regime and his appeal to the selfishness of the middle classes that dread their loss of standing. Even “the nationalist rhetoric is no more than the mortar that helps to activate and organize these attitudes into a whole.”

I find Mária Vásárhelyi’s argument compelling–another piece of the puzzle that is the Orbán government.

“What shall I call you?”* The political system of Viktor Orbán

You may recall that a few days ago I published a lecture of Gábor Demszky, former mayor of Budapest, delivered in the Library of Congress. After the text of the lecture I described an exchange between Anna Stumpf, political attaché of the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, and Gábor Demszky. Stumpf, the daughter of Viktor Orbán’s right hand man during his first administration and today a member of the Constitutional Court, took exception to Demszky’s description of the dire situation of the media in Hungary today when he claimed that in some ways it is less free than it was in the Kádár regime’s last few years. She exclaimed: “You are not serious!” Gábor Demszky’s answer was, “Yes, I’m serious. I lived in it.” Within a couple of days this footnote to Hungarian Spectrum‘s coverage of the lecture made the rounds in the Hungarian media. It made a splash even in the liberal press because the Hungarian opposition doesn’t quite know what to call Viktor Orbán’s political system. Moreover, they are reluctant to describe the “System of National Cooperation” as a regime that is perhaps worse than the “soft dictatorship” of János Kádár. Bálint Magyar and his coauthors from many disciplines describe Viktor Orbán as the Godfather, the leadership of Fidesz and their friends and relatives as mafia, and the political structure as a “mafia state.” The book this group of political scientists, philosophers, economists, and sociologists published became a bestseller in Hungary since it appeared a few weeks ago, and references to the “Hungarian Octopus,” the title of the book, appear frequently in the written and electronic media. Yet some people are not entirely satisfied with the description. There are a few people, especially those who publish mostly in German, who consider Orbán’s system “fascism” pure and simple.  Magdolna Marsovszky is one of the chief proponents of this theory. Only today she commented on an article in the German-language blogPusztaranger, which dealt with a conference organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. One of the guests was Attila Vidnyánszky, the new director of the Hungarian National Theater. What Vidnyánszky said at the conference led Pusztaranger to call this new National Theater a “faschistiches Erlösungtheater,” that is, a fascist redemption theater.

A telling pictorial description of the political system of Viktor Orbán. A combination of old socialist and nationalistic sybols

A telling pictorial description of the political system of Viktor Orbán. A combination of old socialist and nationalistic symbols / www.deviant.com

A few days ago Ágnes Heller described the present situation in Hungary as “Bonapartism,” which is defined as “a political movement associated chiefly with authoritarian rule usually by a military leader ostensibly supported by a popular mandate.” When pressed, she elaborated by saying that Bonapartism is at its core striving and acquiring power for its own sake. Moreover, such a system, according to her, cannot come to a resting place, a consolidated state of affairs because the very essence of Bonapartism is the continual striving toward greater and greater power and glory. Such a quest, however, must eventually fail. Society cannot be maintained in a constant state of ideological, national, and social warfare. Others, like János Kornai, agree that Orbán’s system is a dead end but, as he wittily said, one can live on a dead end street for a very long time. A society can live under such circumstances for perhaps decades. That was certainly the case with the Soviet Union. Not a pleasant prospect for those people who believe that Hungary’s future lies with the West, which entails a break with its authoritarian and communist past. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the main outline of Viktor Orbán’s devilish plans for his “revolution” were in the making most likely years before the 2010 electoral victory. László Lengyel, a political commentator and economist, thinks that Orbán and his closest collaborators had a completely defined plan for the political edifice they intended to build way before 2010 because as soon as the first session of parliament gathered, the plan for the System of National Cooperation (Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere or NER) was ready for immediate implementation. And commentators are starting to realize that Orbán’s regime is more than populism. The word “dictatorship” is an increasingly common description. There are just too many signs that Orbán’s world bears a suspicious resemblance to the communist times when one had to fear the authorities. Comparisons are made to the Rákosi regime instead of to the milder Kádár era. By the late Kádár period people’s property, for instance, was left alone. One didn’t have to worry that one day some official would arrive and take away one’s car or apartment. But nowadays private property is not at all safe. If the government decides to take away the livelihood of thousands of slot machine owners, it can do it from one day to the next. Or steal millions in savings. It can do it with impunity. Often the goods taken away are passed on to others who are favored by Viktor Orbán and his friends because they are on the right side, the national side. Again, the charge is that a complete change in ownership structure is being contemplated and slowly achieved. Here again the point of comparison is the Rákosi regime. But at least then the state didn’t turn around and sell the confiscated property to its own clients. Then it was done for ideological reasons. And then comes the soul searching. What did we do wrong in 1989-1990? At first, the participants were certain that their peaceful political and economic transition was ideal; it was certainly judged to be the best in the region by outside observers. A lot of people still cling to that belief. But, others argue, perhaps the introduction of a great number of cardinal laws, which need a two-thirds majority to pass, was a mistake. Ágnes Heller charges, not without reason, that the Budapest intellectuals who made up the democratic opposition really didn’t know the people of the country they lived in. Others rightly point out that the democratic education of the population, especially of the youth, was completely neglected. On the other hand, one cannot accuse Viktor Orbán of not knowing his people. He knows them only too well, and this is the key to his success. But more about this tomorrow. —— *I borrowed the title from one of the best known poems of Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849). The original and its English translation can be found here.

Victor Orbán and twentieth-century Hungarian history

Those of you who follow the comments may already have discovered that next year a new historical research institute will be set up by the Hungarian government. The institute, named Veritas Történetkutató Intézet (Veritas Historical Research Institute), will be up and running in 2014. The idea for yet another historical institute naturally came from the prime minister, who instructed the Ministry of National Economy to find funds for it in next year’s budget.

The goal of the institute will be “the strengthening of national unity” and “the authentic and worthy depiction of the Hungarian constitutional tradition.” Those who are chosen as associates will have to concentrate on the last 150 years, especially on political and social events. And they will have to produce research results “without any distortion,” which might not be an easy task since one of the goals of the institute will be the “strengthening of national consciousness.” Scientific neutrality and “national” historiography are hard to reconcile.

It seems that the Orbán government is not satisfied with the number of institutes whose members already study this particular period: there is the Habsburg Foundation as well as the Twentieth-Century and the Twenty-First Century Institutes directed by historians close to the present government. One suspects that the government’s aim is to widen the circle of historians whose devotion to the nation is unquestioning.

Viktor Orbán, the seeker of historical truth. Let’s see what he had to say in his speech about the times before and after 1956 and about another landmark in Hungarian history, the change of regime in 1989-1990.

Orbán described the 1956 revolution as the manifestation of an all-embracing feeling that the Hungarian people must act because otherwise the nation will perish. According to him, “everybody knew, or if they didn’t they felt it, that this cannot go on. If the Soviet world continues, nothing will remain of Hungarian life which is ours. … We felt in our bones and guts that the fate of our country is at stake. That’s why the overwhelming strength of the enemy didn’t matter. One couldn’t wait any longer. We had to do what was superhuman. Everything else would have led to the extinction of the nation.” For Orbán, the revolution’s only goal was national survival.

One doesn’t have to be a student of the revolution and its aftermath to sense that this explanation cannot be correct. After all, the revolution was crushed after about two weeks and Hungarian life managed to survive forty-three more years under communist rule within the Soviet bloc. Moreover, hundreds of books and memoirs attest to the fact that the uprising was totally spontaneous. And very few us who took part thought in such lofty terms. No one was terribly worried about our 1,000-year history; we wanted to get rid of the Stalinist leadership that had brought so much suffering to so many.

Viktor Orbán offered another highly questionable hypothesis. The arrival of János Kádár, which began his long rule at the head of MSZMP (Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt), was bearable for the citizens of the country “because we could remember our heroes of whom we were so proud.” I think it is enough to read the memoirs of those who were incarcerated for a few years. When they were at last freed no one cared a whit about either them or the revolution. In fact, most people considered them fools for sacrificing years of their lives to a lost cause. As István Eörsi, the poet, described so well his encounter with reality in 1960. A book was written on this subject with the title “Silent Heritage.” No one talked about it, no one cared about it.

Once Orbán was in the swing of things he moved on to Hungarians’ other heroic struggles against communism in the twentieth century. He claimed that in the last century “Hungarians threw off the shackles of dictatorship three times. We got rid of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919; we cut loose the fetters in 1956, and in 1990 we overthrew the reign of goulash communism.”

Let’s start with 1919. The Hungarian people didn’t get rid of Béla Kun and his fellow commissars, the Romanians did. The Hungarian Red Army was demolished by the Romanian army, the Béla Kun government resigned, and  most of its members escaped. A couple of days later the Romanians occupied Budapest.

In 1956 Hungarians naturally did not throw off any shackles; they only tried. Although the outbreak of the revolution in Hungary was an uncomfortable episode for the Soviet Union, a few years later US-Soviet relations, for example, improved in comparison to the 1950s.

When it comes to 1990 and the overthrow of the regime, once again anyone who watched the events leading to the change of regime knows that the Eastern European countries managed to regain their freedom as a result of an economically and militarily greatly weakened Soviet Union whose leaders decided that they didn’t have either the will or the resources to fight for a Soviet empire in the region. Without that Soviet decision, in Hungary, just like in the other nations of the Soviet bloc, the one-party system would have continued–a system in which, most probably, Viktor Orbán and the other top Fidesz leaders would have had high party and government positions just as László Kövér predicted in 1985.

Orbán told his listeners yet another story that bears little resemblance to reality. 1989 was the year in which monumental changes took place. Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs were reburied, the Oppositional Round Table (which included MSZMP) worked out all the arrangements for the regime change. The barbed wire fence between Austria and Hungary had already been dismantled. Therefore it is more than an exaggeration to say that “the strength of those killed in ’56 worked in our cells and the crushed truth expanded our chests. There was no power that could stop us. It was here on that square that we declared that the Soviet soldiers must leave Hungary. It was here that we said that the communist party must be forced to accept free elections.”

The young Viktor Orbán tells the Russians to go home, June 16, 1989

The young Viktor Orbán tells the Russians to go home
June 16, 1989

Of all this, the only thing that is true is that Viktor Orbán did demand Soviet troop withdrawal in his speech, which in fact was an unnecessary gesture because an agreement had been already reached between Hungary and the Soviet Union concerning the issue of troop withdrawal.

I guess one cannot make an effective speech about 1989-1990 by calling attention to the less heroic aspects of those years. For example, the general apathy of the people who passively watched the few politically active leaders who were deciding their fate. And I guess one shouldn’t note that just as many people showed up at the funeral of János Kádár as at the reburial of Imre Nagy two weeks earlier.

1956 had to be reshaped in the image of Orbán’s own nationalism and his own program. Because, after all, he gave the marching orders for the coming victorious election after which “we can finish what we started in 1956.” They? There’s an ideological chasm between the ideas of the intellectual leaders of the 1956 uprising and the thousands of students who played a large role in the events on the one hand and Viktor Orbán’s “System of National Unity” (Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere [NER]) on the other. They started nothing, and they’re not finishing anything either, except in the sense of “finishing off” the country’s fledgling democratic spirit.

Two Hungarian national holidays: August 20 and March 15

On the eve of one of Hungary’s three national holidays it is perhaps appropriate to say a few words about the history of August 20, the “name day” of Steven (István).

Name days evolved from the Catholic custom of devoting one day of the year to a particular saint. Saints are ranked. Some deserve special days that are observed everywhere while others must be satisfied with local fame. For a while St. Stephen’s day made the short list after Pope Innocent XI in 1686 elevated it to universal status. It seems that August 20 was already occupied because, according to the liturgical calendar, St. Stephen’s day was to be celebrated on August 16. But then came Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) who thought that there were far too many saints’ days, whereupon Hungary’s St. Stephen was relegated to the list of saints celebrated only by the Hungarian Catholic Church. Besides Stephen only three saints–Stephen’s son Imre (d. 1031), King László (1046-1085), and Margaret (1242-1270) of Margaret Island fame (where in fact she died)–get special notice from the Hungarian Catholic Church. All the rest of the “Hungarian saints and blessed ones” must share one day, November 13.

It was at the time of Queen Maria Theresa (1717-1780) that the veneration of St. Stephen was revived. Maria Theresa was grateful to the members of the Hungarian Diet who didn’t object to her accession to the throne. She showed her gratitude in many ways. For instance, she was the one who managed to secure a mummified right hand from Ragusa (today Dubrovnik) which allegedly belonged to the saintly king. The Holy Right Hand was brought to Buda in 1771, and from that time forward it was the highlight of the religious procession held first in Buda and later in Pest on every August 20th. At least until 1947.

The Holy Right Procession, August 20, 2012 MTI / Photo Zsolt Szigetváry

The Holy Right Hand Procession, August 20, 2012
MTI / Photo Zsolt Szigetváry

During the period between 1945 and 1990 two new holidays were added to the old ones of March 15 and August 20: April 4, the day when allegedly the last Hungarian village was liberated by the Soviet troops (the date turned out to be incorrect), and November 7, the anniversary of the Great October Revolution. March 15, celebrating the Hungarian revolution of 1848, was relegated to a school holiday while August 20th became Constitution Day because it was on August 20, 1949 that the Stalinist constitution was promulgated.

Clearly something had to be done about the Hungarian holidays after the change of regime in 1989-1990. There was no question that November 7th and April 4th had to go. There was also no question that March 15th’s former importance must be restored. Moreover, August 20th could not remain as either Constitution Day or, as it was sometimes called, the day of the new bread. Adding October 23 to March 15th and August 20th was also a given. The only debate centered around which of the three should be primus inter pares.

SZDSZ, Fidesz, and MSZP opted for March 15th, arguing first that it was a secular holiday, not one with religious overtones, and second that 1848 signified the turning point when Hungary left feudalism behind and embarked on the road to a  modern form of parliamentary democracy.  There was a practical argument as well. On the chief national holiday embassies usually hold a reception where members of the government of the host country and representatives of other embassies are invited. August is not exactly the best time to hold such a reception. But the right-of-center government parties that were in the majority won and August 20 became “the” national holiday. Similar arguments developed around the question of the Hungarian coat-of-arms and again the conservative right voted for the crown as opposed to the coat-of-arms used after the dethronement of the Habsburgs in 1849.

The history of March 15 says a lot about Hungary’s history. In the wake of the 1848-49 revolution and war of independence the celebration of March 15 was outright forbidden. After the Compromise of 1867 Emperor-King Franz Joseph understandably wasn’t too happy about this reminder of the very difficult years of the empire. However, as long as celebrations were not too obvious they were tolerated. All was well until 1898 when Ferenc Kossuth, son of Lajos, who was invited to head the Party of Independence, suggested that March 15th should be an official national holiday. Such a move was too much for Franz Joseph as well as for the Hungarian government. A compromise was worked out. The national holiday, it was decided, would be on April 11, the day King Ferdinand V signed the so-called April Laws that transformed Hungary from a feudal state to parliamentary democracy. What followed was typically Hungarian. The Liberal Party celebrated on April 11 and the Party of Independence on March 15. Not much has changed in Hungary, it seems, in more than one hundred years.

The politicians of the Horthy period had an ambivalent attitude toward anything to do with revolutions and March 15th became an official holiday only in 1927. After all, they defined themselves as counter-revolutionaries, so it often happened that the official speeches were not so much about March 15 or even about April 11 as about the thirteen executed generals and about Világos (Arad County, Romania) where the Hungarians surrendered to the Russian General F. V. Ridiger on August 13, 1849. The official programs were held in those days on Szabadság tér amid irredentist statues reminding everybody of the lost territories. Later, as war was approaching, they moved the event to Heroes’ Square where again instead of celebrating parliamentary democracy the event focused on war efforts and regaining lost territories.

Immediately after the war the Hungarian Communist Party was super nationalistic and the 100th anniversary of the revolution was celebrated with great pomp and circumstance. By 1951, however, March 15 was demoted to be a non-holiday or at least an ordinary working day. It is hard to figure what motivated the Rákosi regime to abandon their tender feelings for 1848. Perhaps there were just too many holidays around March and April, including Mátyás Rákosi’s birthday. Or perhaps, as was the case later in the Kádár regime, they were afraid of the message of 1848: freedom, parliamentary democracy, independence.

This situation became even worse after 1956. Usually only a few hundred people dared to gather in front of the National Museum or at the statue of Sándor Petőfi. However, by 1969 János Kádár felt secure enough to organize a bigger celebration, but it wasn’t really about March 15 and what it meant.  Instead, the regime created a new holiday called Forradalmi Ifjúsági Napok (Days of the Revolutionary Youth). The Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség (KISZ) celebrated March 15, March 21 (the day of the Proclamation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919), and April 4 (the Day of Liberation) in one neat package.

It happened first in 1973 that the police used nightsticks to disperse the young people who gathered to celebrate March 15. From there on such incidents occurred practically every year. The last police attack on the celebrants took place in 1988 in spite of the fact that the Politburo of MSZMP four months earlier, on December 15, had declared March 15 to be a full-fledged national holiday again.

Surely, the socialist regime feared March 15th much more than August 20th.  Yet today’s Hungarian right, which claims to be fiercely anti-communist, prefers the heritage of August 20th which has very little to do with the concerns of today: democracy, freedom, human rights, equality, freedom of the press, freedom of expression. Should we wonder why?

The zeal of Viktor Orbán: Where will it lead?

In some respects the present political leadership reminds me more of the Rákosi regime than of the Kádár period. Before someone jumps on me, let me emphasize the words “in some respects.” First and foremost, I think of the zeal with which the Orbán-led political elite began to rebuild society. This entailed a radical change of everything known before. The Fidesz leadership seems to be very satisfied with the results. Just the other day László Kövér claimed that under their rule all the nooks and crannies of society that had developed since the regime change of 1989-90 were reshaped. Everything that came before 2010 had to be altered in order to build a new Hungary.

The last time we saw such zeal was in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the communists wanted to turn the whole world upside down or, to use another metaphor, to wipe the slate clean. As one of their songs promised: “we will erase the past.” And they began in earnest. They wanted to build an entirely new political system–immediately.

Such attempts usually fail because such rapid change cannot be achieved without ransacking the economy. If one lets the experts go for political reasons and fills their positions with people who finished at best eight grades, the results are predictable. If you get rid of the former manager of a factory because he is deemed to be reactionary and you hire a worker without any experience in management to run the newly nationalized factory, we know what will happen. And indeed, in no time the Hungarian economy, which had recovered after the war with surprising speed, was in ruins. Food rations had to be reintroduced in 1951 or 1952.

This is the same kind of zeal that one sees with the Orbán government. Only yesterday Tibor Navracsics proudly announced that in three years they managed to pass 600 new laws. He added–because Orbán and company can certainly compete with Rákosi and his gang when it comes to bragging–that these laws are of the highest quality. In fact, legal scholars are horrified at the poor quality of the legislative bills pushed through in a great hurry with last-minute amendments.

By contrast János Kádár, who became the first secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party (at that point called Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt), moved slowly, hoping to gain acceptance after the failed uprising. In fact, the whole Kádár period was known for its cautious, deliberate move toward a less oppressive regime. It was still a dictatorship but it was based on an understanding with the citizens who were ready to make some political compromises in exchange for a better life. By the 1980s, although there were some taboo topics,  intellectual freedom was greater than in any of the other satellite countries.

Intellectual freedom. Unfortunately the present political elite’s attitude toward literature and art greatly resembles that of the Rákosi era when there was a long list of forbidden books and when, as far as art and literature were concerned, socialist realism was the only accepted form. The situation today is not very different. The government supports art and literature that is “national.” Modernity is out and the nineteenth-century classical style is favored. Fidesz politicians on both the local and the national level make sure that only theater directors who cater to their taste are appointed. The very successful director Róbert Alföldi lost out in his bid to continue with his work at the National Theater to a man who talks about the National Theater as a sacred place that he plans to have blessed by a Catholic priest. The plays he is going to stage are mostly written by Hungarian authors. The emphasis is on Hungarian, not on quality.

I could easily be charged with overstating the similarities between the two leaders and their governments. For instance, one could retort, don’t compare the poverty of the Rákosi regime to that of today. But don’t forget that in the late 1940s and early 1950s Hungary was still paying war reparations to Russia while today Hungary is getting handsome subsidies from the European Union. Believe me, without that money Hungary would not be able to meet its financial obligations. Another difference is that today there are still large foreign companies in Hungary which by the way are practically the only source of Hungarian exports. Without them the country would be in even greater economic trouble than it is now. However, Viktor Orbán is working hard to take over some of the foreign companies and banks. And if he continues with his onerous tax policy, the owners of these businesses will most likely be glad to sell to a state that seems more than eager to take them over and that, so far at least, has not balked at overpaying.

Viktor Orbán as some blogger sees him / ellenallas.blog

Viktor Orbán as a blogger sees him / ellenallas.blog

As for the clientele of the two regimes. The Hungarian communists in 1948 and afterwards wanted to obliterate the old upper and even lower middle classes and give power to the working class. The better-off peasantry was also considered to be an enemy of the people. They made  no secret of the fact that they wanted a complete change: those who were on the top would be at the bottom and the poor peasants and workers would be on top. They didn’t even try to hide their intentions. Orbán is undertaking the same kind of social restructuring, albeit with different winners and losers. His goal is a complete change of not only the business but also the intellectual elite. Those who sympathize with the liberals or the socialists will be squeezed out and politically reliable Fidesz supporters will take their place.

People I know and whose opinion I trust tell me that Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió had more balanced reporting in the second half of the 1980s than they do today. This is where Hungary has ended up after three years of frantic Fidesz efforts to remake the country.

András Bruck in a brilliant essay that appeared a few days ago in Élet és Irodalom insists that despite appearances Hungary today is a dictatorship because what else can one call a system in which every decision is made and put into practice by one man? And what is really depressing, says Bruck, is that the dictatorship prior to 1989 was forced upon Hungary by Soviet power. Today there is no such outside pressure. Hungarians themselves gave Fidesz practically unlimited power and for the time being show no signs of wanting to get rid of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. In fact, 1.5 million people are devoted to him and in a nationalist frenzy are ready to fight against the colonizers of the European Union. A shameful situation.